CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Lawn Bowls Club has existed since 1924. There are old-time Florida postcards showing lawn bowlers playing their sport on what is now the site of Clearwater's City Hall.
But after 85 years, a combination of city budget cuts and the sport's declining popularity here might spell the end for local lawn bowling.
Thursday night, the City Council reluctantly signed off on a contract that will require the club to pay nearly the full cost of operating its clubhouse and lawn bowling complex on Alt. U.S. 19 near Stevenson Creek, where the club has been located since 1964.
The lawn bowlers will start paying for water usage, electricity, storm drainage and other utilities — bills that are costing the city about $26,000 this fiscal year.
But the club says it can't afford that, and it might have to close up shop.
"We're in a financial bind," board member Cliff Bailey told the City Council. "We have people come from all over the world to bowl here. … We're going to have to have some help on this."
The city doesn't want to see the lawn bowling complex close. But Clearwater will soon cut at least $1.5 million from its parks and recreation programs. City officials say the lawn bowling club doesn't have enough Clearwater members to justify a subsidy from city taxpayers anymore.
At its peak, the club had more than 400 members. Today there are about 70. Most don't live in Clearwater, said Kevin Dunbar, city parks and recreation director.
The lawn bowlers contend that their club is attracting out-of-towners to Clearwater, where they spend money in local restaurants. The club also holds wintertime tournaments that draw hundreds of visitors to area hotels, they say.
They also note that their club requires no city staff and spends about $10,000 a year for its own greenskeeper. "We need time and help from the city," said member Rick Marinaccio.
However, that doesn't change the fact that Clearwater officials say they can no longer afford to subsidize things like this.
"We're cutting to the bone now," Dunbar said.
"This is meat cleaver time, to get to the numbers we need to be at," City Council member Paul Gibson said.
Aside from the Clearwater Lawn Bowls Club, the city is also eliminating its subsidies for the Clearwater Shuffleboard Club and the Clearwater Horseshoe Club, saving a total of nearly $59,000. But the other two clubs think they can survive.
"I would be loathe to see the sport of lawn bowling disappear in Clearwater. But the fact remains we have a duty to all the people in Clearwater," City Council member John Doran said. "This is not easy. We're not happy about this. But we have to make a decision."
To survive for another year or so, the lawn bowlers will probably tap a $22,000 memorial fund that is intended for capital improvements.
Because many of its members are Canadians and other snowbirds, Dunbar suggested the club save money by shutting down during its six-month offseason.
Still, the club's future is very uncertain. Its members hope that retiring baby boomers will replenish their numbers, but it's not clear whether that will happen.
The other day, longtime member Bill Farrell was walking around the lawn bowling complex, showing a visitor its flat, manicured lanes, surfaced with powdered stone, wetted and rolled to make firm. The surface is similar to a clay tennis court.
The goal of the game is to roll slightly asymmetrical balls called "bowls" toward a small white target ball, or "jack." It's tricky because the bowls curve when they're thrown. The team with the closest bowls to the jack wins.
During wintertime tournaments, hundreds of people play here.
"This is why we're upset," Farrell said. "We don't want to lose this."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.